With the demotion of Mike Budenholzer and Doc Rivers to mere head coaches (RIP Roc Divers), critiques of the head coach/president of basketball operations model have begun popping up during the offseason. In turn, Stan Van Gundy, as one of the few individuals in the NBA with that power, has begun to come under media scrutiny.
The basic critique of the HC/PoBo model boils down to this: Coaches have to think in the short-term, front offices have to think in the long-term, and trying to do both results in doing neither well. There are concrete examples of this: Budenholzer, in not trading Paul Millsap at the trade deadline to chase a playoff spot, lost Al Horford and Millsap in consecutive offseasons with nothing to show for it. Tom Thibodeau needs to pay Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Jimmy Butler near-max money soon, which would be a lot easier for the front office to do if Gorgui Dieng wasn’t extended because the head coach likes lineups with two bigs.
Rivers, as Bomani Jones eloquently put it, “Wouldn’t call you unless your number was already in his phone,” and the Clippers have failed to develop talent under his watch as a result. Even the Gregg Popovich-led San Antonio Spurs have begun to do things like “Retain Pau Gasol instead of Dewayne Dedmon” and “Let Jonathan Simmons go despite him being a restricted free agent.”
Levying similar critiques against Stan Van Gundy works. Stan Van Gundy has been the head coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons for three full years now, and to be clear, he has made bad moves. The initial reluctance and ultimate inability to trade Josh Smith, forcing him to be waived-and-stretched. The Boban Marjonovic signing, getting a luxury piece at a position of relative strength, is a coin flip right now. And, of course, the Avery Bradley trade has the potential to be utterly disastrous if Bradley isn’t retained.
However, it’s strange that the name of Jeff Bower, the General Manager of the Detroit Pistons, never comes up when we’re collectively recapping the moves Detroit has made. Stan has said in press conferences that during the season, he coaches and lets the staff he hired - including Bower - do the jobs he’s hired them to do. Stan’s talked glowingly about the pro scouting department doing the work he can’t. Bower was instrumental in constructing the Avery Bradley trade. A vital part of leadership is delegation, and not enough credit and/or blame is directed at the rest of the front office when moves are made.
Stan signs off on everything, though, and there have been good moves made under his watch, too - moves that square the circle of thinking in the long- and short-term. Offering a post-rookie max to Andre Drummond is a move 30 out of 30 NBA franchises make, and that’s not a short-term play. Committing to Reggie Jackson as your point guard of the future (with a deal that looked like an overpay at the time but has him at No. 14 in the NBA in point guard salary) isn’t a short-term play. Trading two middling expiring contracts for Tobias Harris a half-season after he signs an extension that declines year-after-year isn’t a short-term play.
If the Pistons’ win total under Stan Van Gundy had gone from 30 to 37 to 44 (instead of 30 to 44 to 37), there’d be a clear narrative about the team’s ascendance this year into a team ready to compete in the middle of the conference. Injuries (specifically, Reggie Jackson’s injury) derailed this past season entirely, throwing off the timeline, and the story we tell ourselves about the Pistons.
Speaking of narrative, prior to this past season the narrative on SVG was lauding him for turning the roster into something that could compete with the middle tier of the East in a relatively short time period. Roll back the clock to October 2016, and you’ve got media singing Stan’s praises:
(The Pistons) will be better for a few reasons. They’ve got better depth. They have Tobias Harris for the full season. They improved at stretch four with Jon Leuer and at backup point guard with Ish Smith. All their players are young enough that they should all get slightly better - and in the case of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, more than slightly better.
It's hard to look back on 2015-16 as anything but a success and a necessary step in the Detroit Pistons' evolution. In two years, coach and president Stan Van Gundy had taken Detroit from 29 to 44 victories, advanced to the East playoffs, and laid the foundation for multiple appearances... Caulking around the guys he already had in place with some select veteran acquisitions was the right approach by Van Gundy.
Stan Van Gundy delivered. Through some smart roster moves and expected great coaching, he brought Detroit to the playoffs for the first time in a long while. The Pistons were actually quite good overall... I think the Pistons are ready to leap into the top half of the East playoff bracket with Boston, Toronto, and Cleveland.
Of course, last season wasn’t the success that was expected, and that’s a big part of the perceived problem. Results matter, and narratives matter. When you make long term moves and win games, it’s called team-building, and you look like the Utah Jazz. When you make long-term moves and lose games, you lack foresight, and you look like the New York Knicks.
The process (not The Process), though, has been sound. Stan Van Gundy hasn’t, for the most part, let talent walk away for nothing in return. He acquired and secured a young core instead of trading for veterans he was familiar with - he didn’t bring in Courtney Lee and Marcin Gortat because he coached them a decade ago. He’s drafted as well as can be hoped without a pick above No. 8.
He’s executed a long-term plan - that plan just hasn’t been as successful as we all thought it would be.
Some of the lack of success has been out of his control - Reggie Jackson’s injury, Jon Leuer’s play in the second half of the year, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s representation playing hardball. Some of the lack of success has been entirely under his purview - Stanley Johnson’s regression, the refusal to utilize a 10-man rotation, the insistence on Andre Drummond getting a steady diet of post-ups.
However, the Pistons are in a much better place than they were before Stan Van Gundy was hired. His vision has led them here. He deserves a shot to see that vision through.